Sports Tragedies And A Nation Without Shame

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Let me begin with an admission: I am saddened by Nigeria’s miserable performance at the just concluded London Olympic Games. When I look at the list of countries that won at least one bronze medal, I am perplexed. Countries such as Bahrain, Morocco, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait each won a medal. Afghanistan, a country that has been at war for many years, overcame all odds to win a bronze medal which we couldn’t achieve.

When I look at the countries that received a medal at the London Olympic Games, I cannot but consider Nigeria’s claim to continental leadership as a form of mockery. What happened to Nigeria, once respected in Africa and elsewhere as a nation of high achievers in sports? Other than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the rest of the countries that received one medal at the London Olympics cannot match Nigeria in terms of economic resources, population size, and military might. Unfortunately, these elements do not always account for a country’s performance in the Olympic Games.

This is not the first time our sportsmen and women would participate in an Olympic Games and come out empty-handed. More than three decades ago, at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, Nigerian sports representatives came out not with medals but with soiled names and swollen faces. Rather than produce medals, they harvested scandals of sorts. Again in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games in South Korea, the Nigerian team excelled in an area that many countries would avoid -- another form of scandal. Countries that lead and want to maintain leadership in global sports learn from their own experiences and the adversities of other nations. Nigeria is not keen to learn from its previous sporting disasters or, for that matter, from the experiences of other countries.

In the past, our participation in international sports had been muddied by scandals of extraordinary proportion such as sexual harassments or gratifications, illegal withholding and misappropriation of foreign exchange allowances meant for feeding, transportation and sustenance of sportsmen and women, inadequate training and improper selection of athletes, as well as the inclusion of a large number of sports officials as members of our delegation.

Already, our sports officials have started wringing their hands, looking for other people to blame. Patrick Ekeji, director-general at the National Sports Commission (NSC), was quoted in The Sun newspaper of last Saturday (11 August 2012) as telling journalists in London last week that the NSC should never be blamed for the poor performance of Nigerian representatives at the London Olympic Games. According to The Sun, Ekeji said: “Nobody will blame us of lack of planning this time round. The NSC played its role well prior to the London Olympics. I want to put it on record that this is the first time in our Olympic history that all the allowances and other entitlements for athletes got to them in a record time. This is the first time no athlete complained about not getting his or her allowance because they got what was due for them on time. Those among them who needed training tours were sent on tours. The time frame may be short, but we did the best we could under the circumstance we found ourselves. I, therefore, stand to be corrected; NSC did its best to ensure that Team Nigeria did well at this year’s Olympics.”

Ekeji’s argument is hollow. On-time payment of allowances and entitlements to athletes is not a guarantee that the athletes would be exposed to the best training and preparation for the Olympic Games. Athletes may have received their allowances on time but they may also have received poor training and preparation ahead of the Olympic Games. Ekeji also said athletes who required training tours were sent on tours. However, a table tennis player quoted in the same report complained vigorously about the wasteful time Nigerian table tennis players spent in Germany to train not with leading players in the world of table tennis but among themselves (i.e., the Nigerian players). In essence, the NSC chose a wrong country, a country that is not known for expertise in table tennis, to train our table tennis players.

Sending table tennis players to train in Germany rather than in China (the number one table tennis country) was a waste of valuable money, time and resources. People in positions of authority at the National Sports Commission must ensure that money meant for the training and development of Nigerian sportsmen and women were utilised in a meaningful way. Athletes, like the table tennis planners, should not be sent on sightseeing tours on the misleading impression that they were sent to acquire skills and expertise in foreign countries.

In an analysis of Nigeria’s awful performance at the London Olympic Games, Sports Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, wrote in The Guardian of last Sunday (12 August 2012): “... as the competition drew to a close, Team Nigeria is still not on the medals table. I must say this is as disappointing for my team and myself as it is for all Nigerians everywhere. But even as painful as this disappointment is, we must have the courage to see it for what it is. This, therefore, is a scientific diagnosis of our condition; a clear testimony to how far our sports have fallen behind... Rather than see this as a failure, we must see it as an opportunity to rebuild. When other countries have found themselves in this kind of situation in the past, they have used the galvanizing power of disappointment to get down to work.”

If I have not heard former sports ministers utter similar cries and pledges to take Nigerian sportsmen and women to a higher platform of sporting excellence, I would have believed Abdullahi. But I cannot believe Abdullahi because we have a history of paying no attention to our past failures in Olympic Games. Four years from now, when we assemble our sports representatives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we will hear our sports minister moan again about the woeful performance of our sportsmen and women. The same sports minister will promise radical changes to the way we train and prepare our sports representatives. That minister would swear his head off and vow to do better to restore international honour and respect to Nigeria’s image in sports.

Ten days before the start of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, The Guardian wrote a predictive editorial on Nigeria’s chances of winning medals at the games. The paper said in an editorial published on Tuesday, 29 July 2008: “The preparations for the Beijing Olympics have been particularly shoddy and irresponsible. The so-called Nigerian team to this year’s Olympics is ill-prepared... Are we ready to contest for places on the victory podium against the world’s best nurtured, best prepared, and best motivated athletes who are products of years of well-organised development programmes and international exposure to world class competition?”

In the Olympic Games, early preparation is an indicator of how every team would perform. Lack of adequate preparation is tantamount to failure. Surely, we have no right to expect medals in London. With no medals to show for our participation at the London Olympics, we have already hit the lowest level that is available for pariah nations (such as Nigeria) that do not take sports seriously. Even as we mourn the woeful performance of our sportsmen and women in London, perhaps we should take comfort in the fact that our sports representatives did not engage in, or expose themselves to, scandals of any kind. That is one reason why we should celebrate.

If anyone tells you that participation in the Olympic Games is more honourable than winning medals, do not believe that nonsense. Countries invest in the Olympic Games not because they are fascinated by the idea of mere participation but because they want to win. Winning confers honour on countries that do extremely well. In general, countries that win Olympic medals tend to be those that invest human and financial resources toward excelling in sports. Countries that win Olympic medals without investing in long periods of training are an aberration. You cannot boil an empty pot and expect to produce delicious soup.

Sports Minister Bolaji Abdullahi was right when he said in London last Thursday: “We have relied so much on luck and prayers to win some medals at previous international competitions. I don’t think this is proper... Medals are won by those who work hard, not those who prayed the most.” Unfortunately, we seem to believe in the power of prayers to overcome all obstacles. That is why we subscribe to the saying that the team that prays more, wins more. The correct catchword should say that the team that practices and trains more, wins more. In sports, there is no short cut to hard work and nonstop training.

If prayer is all we need to win medals in the Olympics, there would be no need to hire trainers, coaches and managers. If prayer is the magic bullet a country needs to excel in the Olympic Games, no government would invest in the construction of training venues and in acquiring sports equipment. Indeed, if prayer is all we need to attain high honour in the Olympics, we could easily put together a Team Nigeria that consists of pastors, Imams, bishops and archbishops to represent us in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. We have these men and women in abundance.